Congressional mailbag

Note to readers: With Congress vacating the Capitol for the week, I thought it would be a great time to catch up on that overflowing bag of unanswered mail.

It sure seems to me that members of Congress get a ton of vacation time. Please advise. — J.B., Toledo, Ohio
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Dear J.B. — I know it must be frustrating, but I assure you that even though they are not here in Washington, members of Congress are still working hard back home answering a whole slew of questions ranging from healthcare to energy to just why they get an entire week off to celebrate the Fourth of July. By the way — they prefer the phrase “district work period” — not “vacation.” If representatives occasionally see the need to redraw or elongate their congressional districts from, say, Sacramento to Cancún, rest assured they are performing top-secret undercover work, which, for security reasons, they simply cannot talk about. Taking spouses along is all part of the covert cover.

Do you think members of Congress get a bum rap for not working hard enough? — L.M., Wichita, Kan.

Dear L.M. — I really do. Members of Congress are constantly working and passing lots of important and unheralded legislation that you never, ever hear about. For instance, just last week the House unanimously passed H.R. 1172 — a bill that directs the secretary of Veterans Affairs to include on the VA website a list of organizations that provide scholarships. Some might call this micromanaging, but think about it. Sure, they could have gotten the website changed with a 20-second phone call or a beer after work with the VA secretary, but in this age of transparency, the House debated this urgent measure for all the world to see. Never resting, when they come back next week, the House will burn the midnight oil debating a companion bill that sets all the color schemes and fonts the VA can use on its stationery.

It sounds like a really nasty medical procedure to me — can you please explain “invoking cloture”? — W.B., Phoenix

Not a bad analogy, W.B. Without getting into all the technicalities, “invoking cloture” is a specialized Senate version of the Heimlich maneuver, and the controversial piece of legislation is a big ol’ chunk of meat clogging the senatorial throat. Fifty-nine senators sit around watching the red-faced choking victim of a bill start to expire, then suddenly, across the room comes running a Spandexed 60th senator who saves the day by invoking the Senate Heimlich. I hope that clears it up.

Could you explain the difference between the House and the Senate? — V.B., Reno, Nev.

Sure, V.B. — you’ll save yourself time spent reading those boring civics books or the Constitution if you think of it this way: Senators are the grad students and members of the House are the undergrads. The senators all wear funky wool jackets with elbow patches, smoke pipes and glide through life escorting drop-dead gorgeous dates to their shiny red convertibles for a night on the town, while members of the House are stuck in the freshman dorm on Friday night playing hallway trashcan basketball, giving each other noogies and smashing beer cans into their foreheads.

Do you think going after Congress for all those multimillion-dollar earmarks is unfair? — J.M., Johnstown, Pa.

Yes — completely unfair! Again, Congress gets maligned for something it should be receiving praise for. In this economy, do you honestly think a politician is so stupid as to fight for money for pig odor research in Iowa or to encourage kids in Hawaii to study astronomy? Of course not.

Do you think Congress has done enough to empathize with the American people during this economic crisis? — K.N., Atlanta

I actually do. Sure, it would be easy to smack them around for getting a juicy pay raise in January — a month when over 600,000 of their constituents lost their jobs. True, during the Great Depression Congress cut its pay by 15 percent. But Congress, being smart and forward-thinking, knows that perception is reality. They could easily have slashed their own paychecks this year too, but they didn’t want to send negative signals that might tailspin the markets. They really wanted to cut their own pay but, for the good of the country, sucked it up and took a 2.8 percent increase as a teambuilding sign of hope and solidarity with the people.


Thanks for all the letters. Feel free to send along any comments, effusive praise and snarky snittisms to jmills@thehill.com.